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What a God is Not. The Earliest Sources from a Comparative Perspective

Ce qu’un dieu n’est pas. Les sources les plus anciennes dans une approche comparée
Peeter Espak
p. 195-209

Résumés

Cette contribution s’intéresse à la nature des dieux dans l’Orient ancien à la lumière de la théologie négative. L’analyse des sources suméro-akkadiennes datées du IIIe millénaire av. n. è. montre qu’une divinité est distincte de tout autre créature. Une divinité, bien qu’immanente et résidant à l’intérieur du cosmos, n’est pas une création seconde, elle n’est pas la création d’une autre entité. Une divinité peut être considérée comme une forme d’existence permanente dans le cosmos, tandis que toutes les autres créatures, humaines ou animales, peuvent être considérées comme des développements secondaires. Cette compréhension ancienne d’un dieu immanent en Mésopotamie n’évoluera que tardivement au Ier millénaire avec l’apparition du concept de la transcendance divine en particulier au Levant puis avec l’émergence du christianisme.

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1In Sumero-Akkadian sources, deities and human beings are usually described and pictured as having quite similar forms and physical appearances. When analysing sources of visual depictions of men and gods the only differences seem to be the larger size of important deities and their horned crowns. Therefore, we cannot say that a god is not “a human being” or “a man” because almost in every respect, be it physical, psychological or sexual, their characterisations are virtually the same. Also, several earthly people—of course, most of them important rulers—already considered themselves divine during their lifetimes. The ancient Mesopotamians created their gods in their own image over thousands of years of imagining, religious development and progress, adding only the aspects of greater power, size and longevity to their gods. Through that process of mythological and religious imagining they became convinced that the gods had created them in their own physical and psychological image.

  • 1 See Fuad Safar, Mohammad Ali Mustafa, Seton Lloyd, Eridu, Baghdad, Ministry of Culture and Informat (...)
  • 2 See Robert Blust, “Proto-Oceanic *mana Revisited”, Oceanic Linguistics, 46, 2007, p. 404, who is in (...)
  • 3 Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness. History of Mesopotamian Religion, New Haven, London, (...)
  • 4 Peeter Espak, “Sumerian inim, Hebrew דבר יהוה and Polynesian mana in the Early Theories of Uku Masi (...)
  • 5 See Peeter Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Ve (...)

2Of course, the archaic history of the development of the Sumerian religion resides only in the realms of speculative imagination and we do not know how the concept of “divine” was perceived, for example, a millennium or two before the invention of cuneiform. Data from archaeological excavations of the first temples of Mesopotamia, such as Eridu1, allow us only to conclude that there was certainly “a deity” or “deities” who received offerings from the surrounding people. We can speculate that, as seems possible in the development of Polynesian religions2 and as also imagined by Thorkild Jacobsen in the case of archaic Mesopotamia3, the numinous or otherworldly concept of the divine must have been derived from or been seen in the forces of nature during the more archaic stages of its development4. The feminine earth and male sky along with several other forces of nature or geographical aspects of the universe remained important and they also personified mythological and religious forces throughout the Mesopotamian history of religion. From actual archaeological and also some later written sources, however, the only forms of the depiction of deities, from the much-speculated pre-eminent mother-goddess figure5 to the later anthropomorphic depictions of a large variety of gods, all have the bodily shape of a human being. Although some gods—especially the moon, Su’en, and the sun, Utu—can also be referred to by using their symbols, a god is most certainly perceived in a bodily anthropomorphised form and the symbol only refers to that human-like deity. God in ancient Sumer and Akkad is simply a considerably bigger and more powerful man.

Deity versus Man

  • 6 Gilgameš is often imagined as a two-thirds god in Mesopotamian sources; see Sebastian Fink, “How Gi (...)
  • 7 Eanatum 1 / Stele of the Vultures: Douglas R. Frayne, Presargonic Period (27002350 BC). The Royal (...)

3The line between man and god in third-millennium written sources and art is by no means absolutely concrete, be it in written sources representing human linguistic capabilities of understanding and describing or in sources of visual depiction. An important ruler can be imagined and pictured as belonging to the realm of gods and having divine ancestry. This is also clearly visible in the Gilgameš mythology and stories around it6. In as far back as the mid third millennium the king of Lagaš, Eanatum, is described as at least symbolically belonging to the family of the gods through the claim that the king was sired by Ningirsu himself, the chief god of the state of Lagaš, in the famous victory Stele of the Vultures (V 1‑3)7:

     é-an-na-túm
a šà-ga-šu-du11-ga
dnin-gír-su-ka-da
     Eanatum,
semen implanted in the womb
by Ningirsu!

  • 8 For an overview of the nature of the deification of Akkadian kings see Vladimir Sazonov, “Vergöttli (...)
  • 9 Naram-Su’en 10: Douglas R. Frayne, Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2334–2113 BC). The Royal Inscriptio (...)

4The direct deification of important rulers is explicitly visible in the case of the rulers of Akkade, especially Naram-Su’en8. One of the best early depictions of such deification can be considered to be the Victory Stele of Naram-Su’en (now in the Louvre) where the victorious king wearing the horned crown is presented as a divine being, bigger than all his other human subjects and slain enemies. The inscription on the Bassetki Statue confirms the godly and divine status of Naram-Su’en during his lifetime. It is stated that the great gods of Sumer and Akkad demanded together with the citizens of the city of Akkade that the king Naram-Su’en be honoured as a deity because of his great achievements. In that city a temple is constructed for him being almost of similar importance to all the other major Mesopotamian gods (lines 24–56)9:

URUki-šu / íš-te4 / dinanna / in é-an-na-ki-im / íš-te4 / den-líl / in nibruki / íš-te4 / ddagan / in tu-tu-liki / íš-te4 / dnin-hur-sag / in kèški / í¹-te4 / den-ki / in eriduki / íš-te4 / dEN.ZU/ in úriki / íš-te4 / dutu / in ZIMBIRki / íš-te4 / dnergal / in gú-du8-aki / ì-li-íš URUki-šu-nu / a-kà-dèki / i-tár-šu-ni-íš-ma / qáb-li- / ma / a-kà-dèki / É-šu / ib-ni-ù
(The people) of his city / with / Inanna / in Eanna, / with / Enlil / in Nippur, / with / Dagan / in Tuttul, / with / Ninhursag / in Keš, / with / Enki / in Eridu, / with / Su’en / in Ur, / with / Utu / in Sippar, / with / Nergal / in Kutha, / the god of their city / Akkade / requested of him (to be); / inside / Akkade / his temple / they built.

5The claims of divine origin from earlier periods of Mesopotamian history are only detectable in relation to important rulers and especially to war-hero kings such as Šulgi, and much later also Hammurapi. This tradition certainly goes far back in mythological understandings and is most probably related to Gilgameš and other Urukean rulers’ claims of divine origin. Such understandings and practices allow us to conclude with certainty  that we cannot claim that god cannot be man or man cannot be god.

Mortal versus Immortal

  • 10 For a longer treatment of the topic see Peeter Espak, “Passing to the Underworld in Sumerian Texts” (...)

6Another way in which a Mesopotamian god could be characterised would be to claim that a god in Mesopotamia is not mortal. Deities have eternal life and cannot die as humans or animals do. This topic is related to the phenomenology of the soul and connected to the general worldview and conceptions about the divine force or soul in general. Since divine forces can be called “immanent” in Sumerian contexts—meaning not residing in an outside unknown or supernatural reality but rather in the same geographical dimensions as all other creatures, including animals as lower forms of existence compared to humans—the divine world or numinous powers have no such characteristics as eternal, immortal, absolute, etc., in Sumerian religion and mythology. We cannot say that god is not “earthly” or that god is “transcendent” and “non-immanent”, living somewhere in the sphere describable as “wholly other”, or imagine the Mesopotamian god itself as something “wholly other”10.

7Gods are, however, usually described as immortal or immune to the regular form of human death. Human death is describable as the loss of the life force, zi (Sumerian “breath”, “life”), and after that the continuing existence of the spirit of the dead person is called gidim in the underworld regions of Kur. Nevertheless, gods can also be destroyed or even killed, as is best demonstrated in the story of the Atrahasis myth where the god We’ila’s slain body or blood is used to form mankind. We cannot claim, therefore, that a god is someone who has eternal life or who cannot die in any circumstances.

  • 11 The edition of the story here and after: Antoine Cavigneaux, Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi, Gilgameš et la m (...)

8Moreover, the eternal life force or breath, zi (Akkadian napištu meaning “throat” or “life”), can also be possessed by human beings in exceptional circumstances. According to the Death of Gilgameš story, the only human person who could have that zi or live eternally is Ziusudra, the Sumerian flood hero. This decision was made by the council of deities after they had decided to destroy mankind in a terrible flood, only afterwards discovering that despite the holy decision and order of the divine council some humans had still survived. Therefore, the solution to the problem of breaking or ruining the divine plan was bestowing eternal life upon Ziusudra, making him almost similar, although not equal, to the gods. This means that eternal life as a concept is not an exclusive characteristic or right of the gods. Ziusudra, who is still described as belonging to mankind (nam-lú-ùlu), is simply given one of the higher characteristics of the gods, making him a “demi-god” higher in quality and rank than the deified but still mortal rulers of Sumer and Akkad. In becoming immortal Ziusudra does not become psychologically or physically different from other humans and continues to live in his previous bodily form (Death of Gilgameš 164‑165, M3 iii)11:

     murub4-me-a zi sag-dili-me-en nam-ti-àm
zi-ús-dili mu nam-lú-ùlu nam-ti-àm
     In our midst you are the only one having life who is living.
Ziusudra is the name of the humanity living

9We cannot definitively claim anything positive or negative that distinguishes between deities and humans based on their mortality. Gods can be mortal just like humans and humans can have eternal life or become almost demi-gods or deities themselves in some exceptional circumstances. The Sumerians have no concept of different spiritual spheres outside the geographical world as, for example, the ancient Egyptians did. Their souls do not travel in between “profane” and “divine” spheres of existence or between “natural” and “supernatural” realities. Gods live in the time-bound and material universe and can be destroyed; they are not completely “immortal”, only more powerful in most respects, and they possess some divine attributes (such as “divine rules” me, “abundance” hegal, “(divine) splendour” melam). But they are still similar in nature to humans and even indistinguishable from them when carrying out their everyday activities.

Born versus Created or Crafted

10There remains one way to examine the nature of the Sumero-Akkadian god which separates deities from the rest of the “created” world, or more specifically separates the major gods of Mesopotamia who are higher in rank from several other semi-divine creatures. Namely, we can claim that gods are not created or crafted by some other conscious being. They are not a result of handiwork or the crafting of someone else, be it another god or some impersonal force. The nature or origin or the emerging process of a Sumero-Akkadian god is best illustrated by several Early Dynastic mythological passages from different creation myths.

  • 12 See Gonzalo Rubio, “Time before Time: Primeval Narratives in Early Mesopotamian Literature”, Time a (...)

11The short mythological text known as Urukagina 15 describes this emerging process of the present world or the formation of the new era of action and birth which follows the previously unconscious or completely static form of existence or “embryonic world”, as defined by Jan van Dijk. The new world or the “era of movement, action and birth” starts by copulation between the male sky god An and the female Ki symbolising the mother earth. An is described as having intercourse in the form of raining his fertile waters onto the bosom of the mother earth Ki, resulting in the birth of new divine beings. The primordial divine creatures Enki-Nunki and the later chief god Enlil, as well as the moon-god Su’en and the sun Utu, are described as not yet alive or existing (Ukg. 15, i 5–iii 4)12:

ki bùru a šè-ma-si

A hole in the earth, it is filled with semen/water

an en-nam šul-le-šè al-DU

An is the lord, in a young hero’s way is standing

an-ki téš-ba sig4 an-gi4-gi4

An and Ki in union, they are shouting

u4-ba en-ki nun-ki nu-sig7

On that day, Enki and Nunki are not alive yet

den-líl nu-ti

Enlil is not alive yet

dnin-líl nu-ti

Ninlil is not alive yet

u4-da im-ma

Today, (the day) before

ul […] im-m[a]

distant […] before

u4 nu zal-[zal]

Day is not passing and

i-ti nu-è-è

the rays of the moon are not going out

  • 13 Bendt Alster, Aage Westenholz, “The Barton Cylinder”, Acta Sumerologica, 16, 1994. See also P. Espa (...)

12Another of the best examples which illustrate the beginnings of the universe from the Early Dynastic period is certainly the mythological text called the Barton Cylinder. This text describes sexual intercourse between the sky god An and the known mother-goddess figure Ninhursag. After the impregnation of the mother-goddess new gods are born. Although the female part of the creation myth is not Ki in this case, as was the case with the Ukg. 15 myth, the symbolism is similar. The god An rains down his waters in the course of a thunder storm and there follows the birth of new divine figures (Barton Cylinder, ii 1–8)13:

igi-zi-gal an-na

The great pure lady of An,

nin gal den-líl

Enlil’s older sister,

dnin-hur-sag-ra

with Ninhursag,

igi-zi-gal an-na

the great pure lady of An,

gèš mu-ni-du11

he had intercourse.

ne mu-ni-sub

He kissed her,

a maš 7

the semen of seven twins

š[à] mu-na-ni-ru

he impregnated into her womb.

  • 14 See Peeter Espak, “Genesis 4, 1 and Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. How Was the First Man Born?”, F (...)
  • 15 See P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 82–83 and 137.
  • 16 Manfried Dietrich, “ina ūmī ullūti, An jenen (fernen) Tagen”, Vom alten Orient zum Alten Testament (...)
  • 17 Edition of the myth here and after: Manuel Ceccarelli, Enki und Ninmah, eine mythische Erzählung in (...)

13This same understanding of the gods being born as the result of an initial sexual union, their separation from the original embryonic state as the result of that union, and the consequent pregnancy of the mother-earth Ki is also clearly reflected in much later Sumero-Akkadian myths14. One of the best examples of this is the myth known as Enki and Ninmah, most probably from the Larsa period15. The beginning of the story describes the separation of An and Ki in the “distant mythological times of creation”16, followed by a determining of the rules of the newly born universe and then the birth of the most important Anunna deities. The male deities then take the female mother-goddesses in marriage and a new generation of gods is impregnated and born (Enki and Ninmah 1–7)17:

  • 18 P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 150–152 for the most probable r (...)

     u4 ri-a-ta u4 an ki-bi-ta ba-an-[tar-ra-ba]18
gi6 ri-a-ta gi6 an ki-bi-ta b[a-an-tar-ra-ba]
[mu ri]-a-[t]a mu nam b[a-tar-ra-ba]
[da-n]un-na-ke4-ne ba-tu-ud-da-a-ba
dama-dinanna nam-NIR.PA-šè ba-tuku-a-ba
dama-dinanna an ki-a ba-hal-hal-la-a-ba
dama-dinanna [x x] ba-a-peš ù-tu-da-a-ba
     In those distant days, in those days when heaven from earth [was split]
In those distant nights, in those nights when heaven from earth [was split]
In those distant years, in those years when the destinies [were determined]
When Anunna gods were born
When the mother-goddesses were taken in marriage
When the mother-goddesses were distributed in heaven and earth
When the mother-goddesses […] became pregnant and gave birth

  • 19 The edition of the story: Alhena Gadotti, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld and the Sumerian G (...)

14Just as in the Early Dynastic myths, so the Enki and Ninmah myth also describes the gods as being born from the sexual union of the primordial or ever-existing An and Ki. None of the gods is crafted or “made” by any other being; the process is natural and analogous to human or animal birth. This similar idea is also explicit in the opening passage of the mythological story entitled Gilgameš, Enkidu and the Netherworld. Although there appears no reference to the birth of new beings, the text describes the birth of the present world as a result of the separation of An and Ki whilst simultaneously determining the divine rules and fates of the new world (Gilgameš, Enkidu and the Netherworld 1–13)19:

     u4 re-a u4 sù-rá re-a
gi6 re-a gi6 ba9-rá re-a
mu re-a mu sù-rá re-a
u4 ul nì-du7-e pa è-a-ba
u4 ul nì-du7-e mì zi du11-ga-a-ba
èš kalam-ma-ka ninda šú-a-ba
imšu-rin-na kalam-ma-ka nì-tab ak-a-ba
an ki-ta ba-da-ba9-rá-a-ba
ki an-ta ba-da-sur-ra-a-ba
mu nam-lú-ùlu ba-an-gar-ra-a-ba
u4 an-né an ba-an-de6-a-ba
den-líl-le ki ba-an-de6-a-ba
dereš-ki-gal-la-ra kur-ra sag rig7-bi-šè im-ma-ab-rig7-a-ba
     In those days, in those distant days
In those nights, in those distant nights
In those years, in those distant years
In those ancient days when important / appropriate things were brought to be
In those ancient days when important things indeed were fixed
When in the shrines of the land bread was eaten
When in the ovens of the land fire was made
When An (the sky) was separated from Ki (the earth)
When Ki was distanced from An
When the name of mankind was established
When An took away the sky for him
When Enlil took away the earth for him
When Kur (underworld) was given as a present to (underworld goddess) Ereškigal

  • 20 The edition of the myth: Manuel Ceccarelli, “Enkis Reise nach Nippur”, Altorientalische Studien zu (...)
  • 21 For the text now see J. Lisman, Cosmogony, Theogony, and Anthropogeny in Sumerian Texts, p. 57–59; (...)

15This myth conveys the idea of establishing mankind at the beginning of time, or at least in the very early stages of the new present world, as is also the case with all other important civilisational aspects. The establishment of mankind’s name (mu nam-lú-ùlu ba-an-gar-ra-a-ba) here, however, does not mean that mankind somehow existed before the gods had actually created it or had imagined this new creature called man (Sumerian lú) or mankind (Sumerian nam-lú-ùlu) in general. Also, in myths where men are described as emerging out of the soil of the ground they are but a secondary development after the emergence of the gods and other geographical features of the universe. The beginning of the myth Enki’s Journey to Nippur describes men as emerging or breaking out from the soil just like plants (line 3)20: ùg-e ú-šim-gen7 ki in-dar-ra-ba: “The people grew/broke out from the earth just like plants”. The text of the Song of the Hoe (line 3)21 also gives a similar description, although the god Enlil is the divine force behind the process: den-líl numun kalam-ma ki-ta è-dè: “Enlil, to make the seed of the land come forth from the earth.”

  • 22 See Wilfred G. Lambert, “The Relationship of Sumerian and Babylonian Myth as Seen in Accounts of Cr (...)

16The birth process of mankind in later Mesopotamian mythology is again illustrated by the Sumerian myth Enki and Ninmah. This myth incorporates several older Early Dynastic mythological understandings and probably also newer and possibly Amorite influences of creation as a direct result of handicraft by the gods. The myth describes how the younger generation of gods refused to perform hard physical labour to take care of the older generation of gods, and the younger gods start revolting. Enki and the mother-goddess therefore find a solution to this problem by creating a substitute class of beings who will do all the physical work themselves, thereby granting all the gods life without having to provide for their own food and shelter (lines 29–37)22:

     ama-ni dnamma-ra gú mu-un-na-dé-e
ama-gu10 mud mu-gar-ra-zu ì-gál-la-àm zub-sìg digir-re-e-ne kéše-ì
šà im ugu abzu-ka ù-mu-e-ni-in-šár
se12-en-sa7-sár im mu-e-kìr-kìr-re-ne za-e me-dím ù-mu-e-ni-gál
dnin-mah-e an-ta-zu hé-ak-e
dnin-immà dšu-zi-an-na dnin-ma-da dnin-šar6
dnin-mug dmú-mú-du8 dnin-gùn-na
tu-tu-a-zu `a-ra-gub-bu-ne
ama-gu10 za-e nam-bi ù-mu-e-tar dnin-mah zub-sìg-bi hé-kéše
     He (Enki) told his mother:
“My mother, (now) there is the blood (of Enki or Namma?) which you set aside, the hard work of the gods impose on it!
Clay from the middle of the roof of Abzu you should mix with it (the blood).
The birth-goddesses shall nip off the clay; you shall put in order the limbs of the body.
Ninmah as your companion shall act;
(birth-goddesses) Ninimma, Šuzianna, Ninmada, Ninšar,
Ninmug, Mumudu, Ningunna;
when you give birth, shall stand by.
My mother, you will determine their destiny, Ninmah will bind them with their hard work.”

17The material used for creating mankind is clay—material from the soil of the earth just as in the creation stories of the Hebrew Genesis. The divine element which probably makes this new creature come to life is divine blood in Sumero-Akkadian mythology (compare to Genesis 2:7, the breath of life making man into a living soul לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה), taken most likely from the mother-goddess Namma or from the creator god Enki himself.

  • 23 Running sweet water as marking the beginning of civilisation or the new era of the kinetic universe (...)

18In contrast to mankind, deities are not formed or crafted using creation by handiwork. They are birthed by “the universe” and are part of the “original” divine rules and the “idea” of the cosmos in the so-called embryonic world before creation. God is not a craftwork or creation of a higher being; god was born to the universe as its “natural” or “logical” inhabitant. Jan van Dijk previously spoke about the Sumerian idea of a pre-civilisational or pre-temporal embryonic universe or the embryonic state of the world. He assumed that the divine rules as potent ideas in mythological imagination somehow already existed before the separation of the sky and earth. This was in some ways similar to the ideas of Plato, to borrow a similar but, of course, not entirely comparable parallel from the ancient world. The starting point of modern civilisation or the temporal world took place through a process of sexual intercourse between the male sky, An, and female earth, Ki. Sweet water started pouring23, also marking the beginning of the new era and civilisation. As most of the texts demonstrate, out of this sexual union many divine beings were born who, again, continued multiplying, and thus many other new divine beings were born. When mankind was created, according to the myth of Enki and Ninmah, it was done by handicraft using clay from the soil and possibly the divine blood of the gods. Although man had a divine element planted inside him he was still a creation by some other higher creature. This is basically the only truly distinctive characteristic which separates the divine from the human. The Mesopotamian god is not a secondary development or a creation of any other being but an idea already contained in the embryonic pre-creational and static world.

  • 24 Annette Zgoll, “Review of: Cavigneaux, Antoine; Al-Rawi, Farouk N. H. 2000: Gilgameš et la mort. Te (...)

19In the universe where god sits at the top of the hierarchy of beings and man as its creation holds more or less the position of an obedient slave or servant of the deities, this human condition was already under philosophical discussion more than 2000 years BC, as demonstrated by the story of the Death of Gilgameš. There is a long speech probably from the god Enki24, who clarifies the nature of human fate and death to Gilgameš as he lies ill on his death-bed, hoping to be granted eternal life from the gods due to his great achievements during his lifetime (v N1 / N2 17–25):

     nì gig ak nam-lú-ùlu-ke4 ne-en de6-a ma-ra-du11
nì gi-dur ku-da-zu-ke4 ne-en de6-a ma-ra-du11
u4 ku10-ku10 nam-lú-ùlu-kam sá mi-ri-ib-du11
ki dili nam-lú-ùlu-kam sá mi-ri-ib-du11
a-gi6 gaba nu-ru-gú sá mi-ri-ib-du11
mè ka-re nu-me-a sá mi-ri-ib-du11
šen-šen nu-sá-a sá mi-ri-ib-du11
geš-geš-lá šu kar-kar-re nu-me-a sá mi-ri-ib-du11
UNU?-gal šà zú kéšda-zu nam-ba-an-[...]
You were told that this is what the evil of belonging to mankind brings?
     You were told that this is what the cutting of your umbilical cord brings?
The day which is the darkest for mankind has arrived for you
The place which is the loneliest for mankind has arrived for you
The flood impossible to oppose has arrived for you
The battle impossible to flee has arrived for you
The unequal combat has arrived for you
The fight from where there is no escape has arrived for you
(But still) you should not go to the underworld (Great City) with an angry heart

20Human life is indeed describable as a “genetically” prescribed illness ending in death, a process already set in motion by the cutting of the umbilical cord, or birth. Man, even with divine ancestry, still sits at the lower levels of the hierarchical pyramid of the universe. He is a secondary development and remains a creature at the mercy of divine will.

Comparative remarks

21This understanding of a deity as a non-crafted form of existence remains common in the Mesopotamian way of thinking almost until the first millennium. Later, several Amorite and also possibly Indo-European-influenced myths (including the Enuma eliš myth) add the aspect of manual construction to the world or universe and also divine creatures as the result of crafting work by a specific deity. This, however, does not change the immanent nature of divine forces also seen in the first millennium Babylonian religion. Only in Judaic and Zoroastrian thinking can we see the beginnings of the idea that human and divine souls are something eternal and in connection. This includes the addition of a new and “wholly other” divine zone or place of existence of a high god or other divine creatures in his surroundings which is not reachable geographically but only “spiritually” or “supernaturally”. This, of course, also means that in theory god can be man and man can be god—as demonstrated by early Christian modes of speculation. In the frameworks of cosmic geography and the idea of creation we also see the addition of this new transcendent deity at the beginning of creation as a timeless ever-existing principle. The new era—or the beginning of the present world—is not caused by the ever-existing geographical concept of the male sky An and female earth Ki but by the more or less sexless divine spirit YHWH who causes the heavens and the earth to exist. This mythological shift or complete change from Sumero-Akkadian religious thought and mythology to a “new level” may best be demonstrated by the beginning of the creation myth of the Gospel of John which has deep connections with Gnostic and most probably also Zoroastrian mythologies:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος

In the beginning there was word

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν

and the word was with god.

καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος

And God was word.

οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν

This indeed was with God in the beginning

πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο

Everything has emerged through him

καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν

and nothing has emerged without him

ὃ γέγονεν

what has emerged.

ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἦν

In him was life,

καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων

and life was the light of mankind.

καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει

And light is shining in the darkness

καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν

and darkness has not accepted it.

22About this supernatural or spiritual God, we can also claim that he has not been crafted or specifically created by any other being. In contrast, this new deity is absolutely timeless and does not transform itself when the geographical world is transformed or even disappears. The fact that such a god is immortal, eternal and uncrafted is (and was already 2000 years ago) detectable to any observer without the need for philosophical or logical reasoning.

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Notes

1 See Fuad Safar, Mohammad Ali Mustafa, Seton Lloyd, Eridu, Baghdad, Ministry of Culture and Information, 1981.

2 See Robert Blust, “Proto-Oceanic *mana Revisited”, Oceanic Linguistics, 46, 2007, p. 404, who is influenced by the nature-religion theories of Friedrich Max Müller.

3 Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness. History of Mesopotamian Religion, New Haven, London, Yale University Press, 1976 elaborates the concept of numinous “natural” powers being the driving forces behind the creation of later anthropomorphised gods. Jacobsen is strongly influenced by the numinous idea from Rudolf Otto.

4 Peeter Espak, “Sumerian inim, Hebrew דבר יהוה and Polynesian mana in the Early Theories of Uku Masing”, Forschungen zur Anthropologie und Religionsgeschichte, 43, 2012, p. 81.

5 See Peeter Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015, p. 189ff.

6 Gilgameš is often imagined as a two-thirds god in Mesopotamian sources; see Sebastian Fink, “How Gilgameš Became a Two-Thirds God: It Was the Ferryman”, State Archives of Assyria Bulletin, 20, 2013–2014, p. 73–76.

7 Eanatum 1 / Stele of the Vultures: Douglas R. Frayne, Presargonic Period (27002350 BC). The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Early Periods, Vol. 1, Toronto, Buffalo, London, University of Toronto Press, 2008, p. 126ff.

8 For an overview of the nature of the deification of Akkadian kings see Vladimir Sazonov, “Vergöttlichung der Könige von Akkade”, Studien zu Ritual und Sozialgeschichte im Alten Orient / Studies on Ritual and Society in the Ancient Near East. Tartuer Symposien 1998–2004, ed. Thomas R. Kämmerer, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2007, p. 325–342.

9 Naram-Su’en 10: Douglas R. Frayne, Sargonic and Gutian Periods (2334–2113 BC). The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Early Periods, Vol. 2, Toronto, Buffalo, London, University of Toronto Press, 1993, p. 113–114.

10 For a longer treatment of the topic see Peeter Espak, “Passing to the Underworld in Sumerian Texts”, Forschungen zur Anthropologie und Religionsgeschichte, 42, 2008, p. 67f.

11 The edition of the story here and after: Antoine Cavigneaux, Farouk N. H. Al-Rawi, Gilgameš et la mort. Textes de Tell Haddad VI, avec un appendice sur les textes funéraires sumériens, Groningen, Styx Publications. (Cuneiform Monographs 19), 2000.

12 See Gonzalo Rubio, “Time before Time: Primeval Narratives in Early Mesopotamian Literature”, Time and History in the Ancient Near East. Proceedings of the 56th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale at Barcelona 26–30 July, ed. Luís Feliu, Jaume Llop, A. Millet Albà, Joaquin Sanmartín, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, 2013, p. 4–5; Åke W. Sjöberg, “In the Beginning”, Riches Hidden in Secret Places: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Memory of Thorkild Jacobsen, ed. Tzvi Abusch, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 2002, p. 230–231; Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake (Mesopotamian Civilizations 8), 1998, p. 140–141; Jan van Dijk, “Le motif cosmique dans la pensée sumérienne”, Acta Orientalia, 28, 1964, p. 40; P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, 145–147; and Jan J. W. Lisman, Cosmogony, Theogony, and Anthropogeny in Sumerian Texts, Münster, Ugarit-Verlag (Alter Orient und Altes Testament, t. 409), 2013, p. 27.

13 Bendt Alster, Aage Westenholz, “The Barton Cylinder”, Acta Sumerologica, 16, 1994. See also P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 182; G. Rubio “Time before Time: Primeval Narratives in Early Mesopotamian Literature”, p. 10; J. Lisman Cosmogony, Theogony, and Anthropogeny in Sumerian Texts, p. 30.

14 See Peeter Espak, “Genesis 4, 1 and Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. How Was the First Man Born?”, Forschungen zur Anthropologie und Religionsgeschichte, 43, 2012, p. 45–70; and P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 174–186 for the general characterisation of the so-called “copulation motive” in Sumero-Akkadian mythology.

15 See P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 82–83 and 137.

16 Manfried Dietrich, “ina ūmī ullūti, An jenen (fernen) Tagen”, Vom alten Orient zum Alten Testament Festschrift für Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 85. Geburtstag am 19. Juni 1993, ed. Manfried Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, Münster, Ugarit-Verlag (Alter Orient und Altes Testament, 240), 1995, p. 5ff. for the mythological concept of the distant times of beginnings when An and Ki separated.

17 Edition of the myth here and after: Manuel Ceccarelli, Enki und Ninmah, eine mythische Erzählung in sumerischer Sprache, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck (Orientalische Religionen in der Antike, 16), 2016; and Carlos Alfredo Benito, “Enki and Ninmah” and “Enki and the World Order”, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1969.

18 P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 150–152 for the most probable restoration of the text.

19 The edition of the story: Alhena Gadotti, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld and the Sumerian Gilgamesh Cycle, Boston, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter (Untersuchungen zur Assyriologie und vorderasiatischen Archäologie, 10), 2014; also Aaron Shaffer, Sumerian Sources of Tablet XII of the Epic of Gilgameš, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1963.

20 The edition of the myth: Manuel Ceccarelli, “Enkis Reise nach Nippur”, Altorientalische Studien zu Ehren von Pascal Attinger. mu-ni u4 ul-li2-a-aš ga2-ga2-de3, ed. C. Mittermayer, S. Ecklin, Göttingen, Academic Press Fribourg, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 256), 2012; and also Abdul-Hadi A. Al-Fouadi, Enki’s Journey to Nippur: The Journeys of the Gods, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1969.

21 For the text now see J. Lisman, Cosmogony, Theogony, and Anthropogeny in Sumerian Texts, p. 57–59; and also Giovanni Pettinato, Das altorientalische Menschenbild und die sumerischen und akkadischen Schöpfungsmythen. Heidelberg, Carl Winter, Universitätsverlag (Abhandlungen der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-historische Klasse), 1971, p. 82–85.

22 See Wilfred G. Lambert, “The Relationship of Sumerian and Babylonian Myth as Seen in Accounts of Creation”, La circulation des biens, des personnes et des idées dans le Proche-Orient ancien : actes de la XXXVIIIe Rencontre assyriologique internationale (Paris, 8–10 juillet 1991), ed. Dominique Charpin, Francis Joannès, Paris, Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, p. 131–133 and P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 163–164 for the meaning of the passage in detail.

23 Running sweet water as marking the beginning of civilisation or the new era of the kinetic universe is also clearly observable in Enki and Ninhursag myth lines 56–58 and the Neo-Sumerian mythological composition NBC 11108. See both texts analysed in P. Espak, The God Enki in Sumerian Royal Ideology and Mythology, p. 144–145.

24 Annette Zgoll, “Review of: Cavigneaux, Antoine; Al-Rawi, Farouk N. H. 2000: Gilgameš et la mort. Textes de Tell Haddad VI”, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, 96, 2006, p. 123 for differing opinions.

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Peeter Espak, « What a God is Not. The Earliest Sources from a Comparative Perspective »Revue de l’histoire des religions, 2 | 2020, 195-209.

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Peeter Espak, « What a God is Not. The Earliest Sources from a Comparative Perspective »Revue de l’histoire des religions [En ligne], 2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2023, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/rhr/10513 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/rhr.10513

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Auteur

Peeter Espak

University of Tartu, Estonia
peeter.espak[at]ut.ee

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